York, England Attractions and Leaning Buildings!
What to Do in York
York, England is one of the oldest medieval towns that is still in operation. Because of this, York provides visitors with an intricate variety of both historical and modern attractions, including the Roman Wall still encompassing most of the town of York, the Shambles street with its comically leaning buildings from the fifteenth century, Yorkminster Abbey, the National Rail Museum, quaint shops and tea houses and icecream places, and my favorite: the little-known treasure of St. Mary's Abbey ruins.
St. Mary's Abbey (Church), York
Walking behind the Yorkshire Museum to see if there was a place we could sit down to eat our sandwiches, my companions and I were surprised by the sudden ragged ruins of an old cathedral, standing in gaping outline against the dark forest behind it like a lace handkerchief left hanging on a tree during a rainstorm. St. Mary's Abbey was an unexpected treat.
According to the small sign, almost a footnote in comparison to the many questions we had, St. Mary's Church had been a monastic powerhouse during the middle ages, and one of the largest landholders in Yorkshire. Monks at St. Mary's Abbey were shrewd businessmen who bought, sold, and traded a variety of commodities all over the medieval England, and the Abbey of St. Mary was the wealthiest Benedictine establishment in northern England. When King Henry VIII departed from the church of Rome so that he could legally divorce his wife, he also commanded that cathedrals, monasteries, and convents be torn down to show defiance to the Catholic church (the "Dissolution of Monasteries"). St. Mary's Abbey was one of the first to be destroyed. St. Mary's Abbey also frequents the early medieval ballads of Robin Hood, in which the Abbot of St. Mary's sought Robin Hood's downfall.
Behind St. Mary's Abbey, York
One of the biggest attractions of the city of York is the beautiful York Minster Cathedral, Northern Europe's largest Gothic Cathedral. Rivaling the Westminster Abbey in size and grandeur, the average tourist will find that there is a feast for the eye everywhere he turns, even if he doesn't decide to pay the entrance fee (£14 last time I was there). Take a walk around this Cathedral of York and you will get a great view of comically grimacing gargoyles perched like bats on the Beast's castle in an old fairy tale.
The first church on this site was a wooden chapel built solely for the christening of Edwin of Northumbria, an Anglo Saxon king. Immediately after his christening, Edwin required the wooden building to be torn down and a stone one built in its place. This did not happen in his lifetime, however, and another man finished the project as Edwin was fighting and dying in battle.
Later, the Norman invasion burnt and destroyed much of the stone church, and the Normans built another Minster in its place --this time even bigger and more beautiful than the first. The building you see now was built onto the Norman church over a period of 200 years, begun in the 1200s by Walter Gray and carried on after his death. York Minster has survived numerous arsons, wars, and even a fire caused by lightning in 1984.
The "Shambles" in York
The Shambles in York
A diagonal cross-street leading to the York Minster Cathedral, Shambles represents a slice of history more than just a street on a map. The Shambles is a line of crooked houses leaning out from both sides of the cobblestone street, their white or brown plaster walls supported by black timber and crossbeams that are aged but not decrepit, raising eyebrows and shifting over the street below in an ancient ugliness that is not frightening. Somehow these hunchback houses have remained standing since the 1400s.
The street's name, "Shambles," came from the Flemish, "Fleshammels," which meant "flesh shelves." For many years, the Shambles was a street of butcher's blocks and butcher's hooks, and you can imagine the mess and smell created when animals' blood and guts were thrown into the center gutter of the street to slowly drain. Our term "shambles," ("I have never seen this room so messy-- it's in shambles!") comes from the butchers' messes on "Flesh Shelves" Street.
Visit York's Shambles now and you'll find sweets and treats shops, souvenirs and gifts, a bakery and a bookstore, fragrant potted flowers spilling from the upstairs windows, and all buildings with the original meat-flesh shelves inside the windows and the large iron butcher's hooks on the overhang.
York City Walls
By the time we got to the tall stone wall that circles York, the rain had gotten to us. It wasn't a downpour, but it was enough to make the stone stairs leading to the walkway on the wall slippery with dark mildew. Much of the wall had not changed since the dark ages, and the little improvements that had been added only enhanced its appearance. We walked on ledge in the wall for its entire length, imagining ourselves sentries as we poked an eye out the narrow arrow slits that revealed the countryside around York, veiled like a medieval bride by the sheer mist that steadily fell. The watchtowers built at intervals on the wall had circular stone staircases and gave a wider view of the city below us, but we liked the parts best where the modern world was blocked by low hills or secondary stone walls and we could imagine we had just stepped over the ripple in time.
© 2010 Ann Leavitt
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